- Combe Martin Watermills

Historic Mill Power for Combe Martin 


This article delves into the historical importance of watermills in Combe Martin. We highlight their role in the village’s self-sustenance and agricultural practices, and trace the existence of mills back to medieval times and their essential function in daily life.

We know from the Combe Martin Local History Group, the people who wrote our local history books and compiled photos and family stories, that Combe Martin had water-powered grist (cereal) mills for grinding grain. Hydropower must also have been used for pumping water out of the Combe Martin Mines.

We emphasise the cultural and industrial heritage represented by the thousands of watermills that once dotted this country. The piece outlines the architectural evolution of watermills, from their construction by the Manor’s lords to their operation by millers who paid rent and collected multure.

We discuss the various designs and functions of waterwheels, which were pivotal in milling grain, sawing lumber, and smelting iron ore. Watermill operators faced seasonal challenges, and technological adaptations such as weirs and mill races were employed to ensure their year-round operation.

We also touch upon the legal and economic aspects of milling, including property disputes and the milling monopoly held by manorial lords. Lastly, the article reflects on the transition from watermills to industrial power sources, noting the decline of watermills with the advent of cheap electrical energy.

Combe Martin's Corn Mills History

As recorded after the Norman Conquest, Combe Martin's two corn mills were owned by the Manor and leased to a miller (CMLHG, p. 55,1989). Most small villages once had to rely on mills and water for all their needs, and they were expected to grind their corn at their lord's mills.

The Historic Environment Record for Exmoor National Park lists hundreds of mill sites on Exmoor, dating from medieval times to the 19th century. Self-sustaining isolated communities, such as Combe Martin with its poor transport links, were no exception. 

In 1903, a mill-house located in Berrynarbor, a stone’s throw from Combe Martin, still had a waterwheel. A picture postcard depicts Miss Jewell and her dog next to the mill wheel, which was powered by water falling from above. Her father, John Jewell, served as the miller at this location from 1883 to 1906.

Dive into Combe Martin's history ˃  or Explore Combe Martin's Industrial History ˃ 

The Corn Miller

The corn miller was once an essential character in everyday life, and Combe Martin folk were taking corn to its two water-powered grist mills as late as the mid-nineteenth-century. 

Moreover, Combe Martin's River Umber and leats were a constant and convenient lifesaver for its mills, mines, fields and orchards. Domesday records no mills in Combe Martin in 1086, although there were ninety-odd mills in this county at the time.

In the late nineteenth-century, the local shammickites were still grinding corn at home with hand-querns, a pair of quern-stone tools for hand-grinding a wide variety of materials. 

Milling in Combe Martin

In the fourteenth-century, Combe Martin's two corn mills - Higher and Lower Mills - belonged to the Manor of Combe Martin and were leased to a miller. The lease conveyed both mills to the same person. The Watermills of North Devon 1994 Group provides the history and details.

The "extent of the"inquisition post mortem" made on the death of the last of the Martins, dated 1326, says "and there are two water mills and they are worth 70 shillings per annum".

Watermills were expensive, built by the lord of the Manor and leased by him to a miller who paid a rent, and in his turn exacted a fee called "multure" or toll in kind. Common in Britain,  multures were set at a fixed proportion of the grain brought, or of the flour made. The rate of multure or fee was normally one sixteenth of the corn ground. 

Types of Mills in Britain

Watermills and windmills were the main types of mills before the Industrial Revolution. Watermills were simpler to construct than windmills, being developed at an earlier date. For large operations the materials for milling were stored in barns.

Watermills have several functions: one is to grind corn into flour, or grain for animal feed. Second: the waterwheel powers a sawmill for cutting lumber. Third: waterwheels for blacksmiths keep a very large hammer simply going up and down, so that the smith can use its weight/power to shape hot metal.

Waterwheels also generated intense heat for smelting iron ore, by driving a pair of bellows.  Raw ores for the smelting process were stored at mill barns in the vicinity.

It is believed there were once well over ten thousand watermills in this country; a significant portion of our agricultural, cultural, and industrial heritage, and a significant game-changer.

Two Corn Mills in Combe Martin

The North Devon AONB publication Silver, Smoke and Strawberries states there were two corn mills in Combe Martin, and it is believed these mills operated from around the 12th Century.

Higher Mill stood near the Pack o' Cards Inn, and Lower Mill was situated at the junction of the A399 and Cross Street EX34 0DH [the Old Road before Borough Road appeared]. There is a Mill House on Cross Street, and a Mr William Somerville owned Lower Mill in 1902. 

Lower Mill was fed from a leat, which started just after the end of Adderstable woods accessible by footpath at the end of Barton Gate Lane EX34 0HQ. Water was ponded on the site of Lovering's coach park on Borough Rd, and ran along an embankment by the Old Road which is now Cross Street. 

How Water Mills Work

Water mills use the flow of water to turn a large waterwheel, struck by water from an overshot or undershot feed. A shaft connected to the wheel axle transmits the power from the water.

Waterwheels come in two basic designs: a horizontal wheel with a vertical axle, or a vertical wheel with a horizontal axle. A system of gears and cogs worked machinery such as millstones or rotary querns to grind corn, or drive saw mills. Quern stone was imported although some was mined locally.

Seasonal Effects on Water Mills

Seasonal variations can significantly impact the water levels in streams and rivers, which are crucial for the operation of watermills. During the summer months, there is a potential decrease in water levels caused by evaporation and reduced precipitation.

Reductions in water levels could severely impact milling productivity, particularly those with an undershot wheel design. The undershot wheel, positioned directly in the stream, relies on the water’s force to propel the wheel.

Conversely but similar to mine shafts, the winter season often brings increased rainfall leading to higher water levels. Unlike mines, this increase could potentially enhance the mill’s power output. However, extreme winter conditions such as freezing temperatures presented additional challenges.

Mill Races and Weirs

Many mills were equipped with features such as mill races (canals flowing to and from mill wheels) and weirs (small-scale dams), to mitigate the issues arising from seasonal water level fluctuations. These adaptations played a crucial role in regulating water levels, ensuring the mill’s constant operation throughout the year.

During the initial stages of water-milling in England, the flow of water was frequently regulated prior to reaching the waterwheel, primarily through the use of weirs or mill races. In time, the stream was obstructed by a weir which elevated the water head. 

Attached to the weir was the millpond and lodge. The water was directed towards the waterwheel via a sluice or mill race, called the head race. From the waterwheel, the water was redirected back to the stream’s course through a sluice, termed the tail race.

Numerous weirs, originally constructed to regulate water levels for a watermill, remain visible on contemporary rivers. Archaeological evidence provides instances of early mill races and weirs.

A notable British example includes the Mill Dam with Weir Sluice Gates and Mill Race, situated in Crosthwaite and Lyth, 5 miles west of Kendal, Cumbria. Historic England lists the Mill Dam site as a Grade 2 structure.

Combe Martin Steam Saw Mills 

Around the year 1835, local merchant and entrepreneur John Dovell established a steam saw mills and shipyard on the River Umber, near Combe Martin's Seaside quarter. With highly-skilled craftsmen: Messrs Dovell, Partridge and Co specialised in building various kinds of ships, schooners being one of them.

North Devon Archaeological Society (NDAS) places a saw mill at The Old Saw Mill Restaurant adjoining Combe Martin, four miles from Ilfracombe. NDAS also states that the sluice or channel turning the waterwheel, and the leat, were still at the location in 1989 (ibid).

Earliest Records of Mills in Combe Martin

The first documentary evidence of water milling comes from the "Feet of Fines" for the year 1198 (King Richard I). In that year, documents relate to the transfer of property, and mills are mentioned in a reference to 12 furlongs (2.4 kilometres) of land from the manor of Combe, Holdstone and Girt. 

"Feet of Fines" was a court copy of an agreement following a dispute over property. Such disputes were mostly fictitious; in reality they were the king's court's method of recording transfers of land ownership.

The Sixteenth-Century

A reference comes from the accounts of the manor in 1507, when it was stated that there was no rent received "from a certain grindstone, because of a broken pipe". There is also a reference to a hemp mill, which must have been used for stripping the hemp of its unwanted coverings. 

More documentary evidence of the mills from 1507 is in the accounts of John Lovering, Steward of the Manor or lord's deputy. The two corn mills were leased for £4 a year, little more than in 1326, to William Lewis, perhaps after whom the site of Combe Martin Lewis Hill is named.

Miller John Peard

A John Peard connected to the mills in the 1700s is likely to be the churchwarden at Combe Martin Church during 1727. With Timothy Harding, Mr Peard left his initials on the much-maligned plaster repair work to the St Peter ad Vincula Church roodscreen. There might have been been more than one prominent John Peard alive in this period but that seems unlikely.

The Eighteenth-Century Mills

In 1700 the two mills were mentioned in a dispute between Richard Stephens and Henry Usticke over ownership of the Manor. Also at this time, a lease of manor property at Lewis Hill - location unknown - to John Peard specified that corn and barley produced on the land must be ground at the manor mills.

In 1766, Anthony Saunders was lessee of the two corn mills and a malt mill at £31.4s per annum; the charge for grinding a bushel (a measure of eight gallons) was 4d.

[Another reference to Lewis Hill in Combe Martin is for Jane Cutcliffe (Priscott) Edwards (1834 - 1908). In 1841 Jane Cutcliffe lived with her father Charles Priscott, mother Mary Priscott, sisters Agnes Priscott, Jane Priscott and Mary Priscott and son William Priscott in Lewis Hill, Coombe Martin.

In March 1851, Jane lived with her father Charles Priscott, mother Mary Priscott, sister Mary Priscott and lodger Elizabeth Willis at Lewis Hill Cottage, Coombe Martin].

Anthony Saunders was followed as mills tenant by John Witheridge, who leased the mills from Rebecca Watson, Lady of the Manor, in 1773, and in 1780 was paid 13s 4d by the Overseers of the Poor for taking John Gear as apprentice.

John Witheridge was succeeded in 1791 by his son William. In 1801, John Heddon was miller, followed in 1808 by James Oatway, maltster, of Barnstaple. In 1825 the great Combe Martin entrepreneur in the 19th century, John Dovell, also a maltster among his many activities, held the lease.

John Dovell was certainly tenant of the Higher Mill in 1845, although this mill had probably ceased working by 1850. In 1910, John Burgess occupied Lower Mill. He was Reeve of the Manor or general manager appointed by the lord or elected by workers.

John Burgess appears on a 1910 photo commemorating the completion of the Combe Martin Drill Hall, now the Village Hall.

Combmartin Consols Mines 

At the former Combmartin Consols [Consolidated] Mines - closed down in 1865 - a mill dated to 1800-1899 is recorded. Its exact location a couple of miles from Combe Martin on the River Heddon, near Trentishoe, is not clear.

The Consol mines belonged to Combmartin and the reference is the Historic Exmoor Environment Record HER MDE21752Around GR SS 6260 4645 at Verwill Lane EX34 0PE, are the remains of mining activity.

The Verwill Lane site was described by Dr Peter Claughton as the Combmartin Consols or Wheal Vervale silver lead mine. The remains include spoil heaps, an alleged adit, and shafts. 'The stub of a dam also survives with a tail race leading from it' (Exmoor National Park HER, 2023). 

Combe Martin Mill 577471

The North Devon Mills Group (1994) confirms that a recorded watermill once stood in the grounds of The Pack o' Cards Inn, High Street, Combe Martin. The leat for the mill - which runs throughout the village - once ran where the old police house now stands. There remains no trace of either (p.118).

Water-Powered Sawmill at Combe Martin

A water-powered saw mill existed in Combe Martin at grid reference SS 577 471; Lat and Long 51.20533500, -4.03836150. This sawmill is listed on The Mills Archive database, ID 5739, and located near Combe Martin Beach Holiday Park, Woodlands EX34 0AS.

Hele Corn Mill at Hele Bay Near Ilfracombe

Not Combe Martin but serving as a good example: in List Entry Number 1203046, Historic England lists Hele Mill [The Old Corn Mill] as an eighteenth-century Corn Mill (Grade II).

The Hele Corn Mill & Tea Room website describes Hele Mill as a "unique 16th century water mill". Grid reference SS 53518 47607; Postcode EX34 9QY.

Four miles from Combe Martin and a fine example of North Devon corn milling: Hele Corn Mill at Hele near Ilfracombe has long been the only operating waterwheel in North Devon.

Hele Corn Mill and Tea Room is a reputable and popular venue; the mill was restored by the owner between 1973 and 1978.

The vertically mounted overshot waterwheel (18 feet in diameter) is rotated by water entering buckets just past the top of the wheel. Historic England says the Mill is of 'whitewashed rubble with a slate roof'. 

The interior is believed to retain the old mill machinery. In 1987, North Devon Archaeological Society (1987) stated that the overshot cast iron water wheel had survived in a dilapidated condition, and there was much machinery inside.

NDAS described the building as constructed of colour-washed rubble and two storeys in height with a slate roof. It was a grist mill, grinding cereal grain into flour and middling by-products. Probably rebuilt in the 18th century, it was once used for storage.

The overshot wheel is made of cast iron with wooden buckets. The wheel is 18 feet in diameter and 3 feet 8 inches wide. The 46 buckets are made of elm. The mill machinery includes a smutter (a vertical machine used for removing diseased grain), an elevator and a grain hoist.

There are two sets of millstones of imported French Burr stone and conglomerate. There was originally a mill pond and three leats.

The present wheel was made by Garnish & Lemon of Pilton, Barnstaple in 1997 to replace the earlier wooden one. At this time most of the gearing was removed.

After World War II, when the wheel drove a generator to supply electricity, the mill fell into decay and the mill pond and two of the three leats were filled in.

The mill was restored by the owner between 1973 and 1978, and is now the only operative watermill in North Devon. The one remaining leat does not supply sufficient water to power the mill in summer, and the water wheel was supplemented by a diesel engine and belting.

Information about the mill and machinery is available at the mill, which is open to the public. The layout of the machinery differs from most of the other watermills in the area. The machinery was brought here from North Molton Mill. (J.E.T. 1988. R.A. 1989).

Read more about North Devon Water Mills from The North Devon Archaeological Society.

Saw Mills and Farm Mills at Combe Martin

The Mills Archive (Mills Research Database) lists a water-powered (watermill) Saw Mill, and a farm watermill at Wheel Farm, Combe Martin. 

Combe Martin Smelting Mills | Combe Martin industrial History | Combe Martin Silver Mining

Mills Before the Industrial Revolution 

The several types of mills before the Industrial Revolution include flour (grist) mills, bark mills, pumping mills, flax mills, ore mills, saw mills and watermills. Waterwheels were once used to drain mines besides milling (grinding)rolling, or hammering, 

In 1870, watermills still produced two-thirds of the power available for British grain milling. By the early 20th century, cheap electrical energy made the watermill obsolete. 

The Corn Laws 1815-1846 in the United Kingdom

Between 1815 and 1846, corn was scarce in the UK because - under pressure from landed groups - government protectionism blocked the import of most cereal grain including wheat, oats and barley. 

Grains became too expensive to import from abroad, even when food supplies were short. Locals were forced to buy grains from local landowners at inflated prices, and grind it locally.

Documented and Lost Mill Sites

Water mills were once the main source of power other than oxen, and they were used to grind grain. In the North Devon District alone, there are over 100 documented former mill sites, yet the number of lost mills and sites in the district would put the total much higher (NDAS, 1989). 

Efficient hydro-technologies existed in Roman Britain, and early medieval watermills - from the late 5th or early 6th century through the 10th century - were associated with either royal or monastic high status sites. 

The Peak of Water Power in Britain

The use of water power in Britain was at its peak just before the Industrial Revolution. There was a high demand for motive power before steam engines became established; one of the first steam locomotives pulled the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825.

Other than muscle or animal power, until the nineteenth-century almost every industrial process needing motive mechanical energy used a water wheel or the less efficient windmill.

The Domesday Records

In 1086 the Domesday Book listed around 6,000 mills in the country, the majority of which must have been established by or during the late Anglo-Saxon period. Six thousand mills in the country should be considered a low estimate because Domesday is incomplete (Open Domesday online, 2023). No mills are listed for Combmartin in the Domesday Book.

Combe Martin Grist Mills and Mining with Water Power

Mill numbers reached a peak in the early 14th century, with thousands of watermills and windmills in England. The invention of mechanical fulling by water power was apparently introduced to these islands by religious orders.

Most villages had a mill to grind corn, but the mills could be turned to other uses. Fulling mills for woollen cloth-making turned England into a major cloth-making country from the 14th century. 

Evolution of Watermills

Medieval mills evolved over the centuries and by 1850 there were 30,000 watermills in the UK. Victorian technology and new generations of millers improved efficiency under the insatiable demand for corn, cloth, timber, tanning bark, metal ores and flour.

British Mills from the 16th Century Onwards

By the 16th century, mills were adapted to paper-making, lead-smelting and tanning. The most dangerous of these was gunpowder-making, and the risk of violent explosions meant that powder mills were generally sited well away from towns and villages.

At the Industrial Revolution circa 1760 to 1840, large-scale spinning mills were common in Britain. A grist-mill was a mill used exclusively for grinding grain for local consumption. In merchant mills, flour was ground and packed for sale.

North Devon Archaeological Society (NDAS, 1989) states that old corn mills and many medieval tucking mills -also known as fulling in woollen cloth-making- were sited by streams in remote rural areas of North Devon. 

Siting and Operation of Watermills

Suitable heads of water on rivers and leats were required to work the wheels, and Mill cottages can be found at the side of leats in Combe Martin today. They are evidence of a thriving albeit long-forgotten and vanished mill industry. 

Millwrights chose the sites so well that they often continued in use for successive mills adapted for other purposes over centuries. Settlements of millers, carpenters, wheelwrights and other craftsmen, grew up around these mills which were supplied by merchants and by local spinners and weavers. 

Ownership of Medieval Mills in England and Wales 

In the countryside, most medieval mills were owned and leased-out by lords of the manor.  Watermills were valuable assets, and lords retained their milling monopoly for centuries.

Even by 1840, tenants of the Rolle estate in Landkey were obliged to ‘cause all the corn, grain or malt used on their premises, to be ground at the mill of Lord Rolle within the manor of Landkey’ (NDAS, 1989). 

Waterwheels in Iron Works

Waterwheels also produced Pig Iron -the product of smelting iron ore with a high-carbon fuel and a clean reducing agent such as coke- usually with limestone as a flu. The bellows blowing air into furnaces were water powered.

In the 16th-century, waterwheel-powered bellows blew air into furnaces; the water wheel was connected to the bellows through a series of crankshafts (Watts, M., 2002)

North Devon’s cloth industry had declined by 1815, yet watermills had another century of life. Most surviving wheels and mill machinery date from this period; iron waterwheels and hybrids -part iron, part wood- superseded the old wooden wheels. Iron wheels could be 22 feet by six feet in size, with iron shafting and drums. 

By means of pinions, iron shafts, belts and pulleys: hybrid waterwheels could drive all kinds of machinery, on farms and in factories appropriately called mills. After tucking mills declined, waterwheels worked heavy hammers and even pumped water out of pits. 

The Many Uses for Waterwheels 

Waterwheels helped to beat leather, cut timber and drive forges. And they were used for stamping and crushing metal from the mines on Exmoor. A "stamp mill" is a type of hammer  equipment used to crush rock containing ore, and it can also mean the site complex. 

North Devon Archaeological Society states that in Victorian times, watermills significantly improved agriculture and other industries in North Devon (1989, p.11); Combe Martin was no exception according to the many visiting topographers and chroniclers of the time. 

Where there was a good water supply, farmers built or adapted waterwheels to power agricultural machinery for threshing, milling cattle feed, pulping straw and roots, and sawing wood, all at faster and more efficient rates.

In the 19th century, North Devon water power also helped to grind bark for tanning, and to make better tools for miners and tradesmen. 

To use water-power, the ground must slope down to a lower elevation over the distance the water is channelled, so that the water comes in at the top of the mill wheel and is let out at the bottom.

Overshot waterwheels are fed by water hitting near the top of the wheel and in front of the axle, so that it turns away from the head race.

The Decline of Waterwheels in North Devon

Mechanical ingenuity enabled instrument makers to attach rotary grindstones, drilling machines, and circular saws, to shafts driven by large waterwheels. Yet North Devon watermills declined after the Second World War, when most farm and corn mills were forced out of the market by changing circumstances (NDAS, 1989).

North Devon AONB Information

Some information is contained in Silver, Smoke and Strawberries - A self-guided, circular, 6 mile walk around Combe Martin (National Trails, North Devon AONB). This book is available from Combe Martin Museum and Information Point, on Cross Street.

References from the several sources we have used, are listed at the end of this page.

© Author JP

July 2023



Bond, C.J. (SPAB 1995): Medieval Windmills in South-western England. Gazetteer.

Exmoor National Park HER:

Historic England (2023): Mill Dam with Weir Sluice Gates, and Mill Race. List Entry Number: 1205060.

Holt, R. (1988): The Mills of Medieval England. Basil Blackwell.

Manco, Jean: Accessed July 30 2023.

Medieval Genealogy (2023):

Mills Archive Trust (2023): Watermill, Combe Martin. ID 5739 Water-powered sawmill.

North Devon Archaeological Society (1989): North Devon Watermills. Barnstaple.

Out Of The World And Into Combe Martin; "THE MILLS". Combe Martin Local History Group (1989). Rotapress Combe Martin.

Powell-Smith, A. (2023): Domesday data created by Professor J.J.N. Palmer and team.

Watermills in North Devon 1994 Group: Watermills in North Devon 1994. Kingsley Printing, Ilfracombe.

Watts, M. (2002): The Archaeology of Mills and Milling. The History Press LTD, 2002.

Watts, M: Watermills and Waterwheels (2018): online book (July 2023).